Global Opinions

#MeToo is at a crossroads in America.
Around the world, it’s just beginning.

By

In 2007, American activist Tarana Burke used the term “Me Too” to raise awareness and stand with victims of sexual abuse. A decade later, the hashtag went viral as women came forward to accuse powerful men of harassment and misconduct.

Now, #MeToo has evolved into a global movement, generating new or spinoff hashtags in many languages. It has impacted countries around the world — and has also been transformed by them. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, activism on women’s rights and gender-based violence has not ceased. If anything, in some cases, it has gained new urgency online.

So what does #MeToo look like around the world? We asked writers and illustrators from eight countries this question. Here are their answers.

#MeToo in the land of censorship

Yaqiu Wang • China

(Jing Li for The Washington Post) (For The Washington Post)

Two years since the #MeToo movement took off in China, Chinese feminists are battling headwinds in a political environment where the ruling Communist Party’s control over the Internet, media and independent activism is tighter than it has been in 30 years.

China’s party-state has zero tolerance for collective actions, so the country’s #MeToo movement has never been able to manifest in mass street protests. But individual victims have taken their cases to court, demonstrating extraordinary determination and resilience.

Facing intense “slut-shaming” on Chinese social media platforms and censorship of discussions of her case, University of Minnesota student Liu Jingyao — who is suing, in a Minnesota civil court, Chinese billionaire Liu Qiangdong for an alleged rape — vowed to never settle or sign a nondisclosure agreement (prosecutors declined to charge him in the case, and he maintains that the sex was consensual). Similarly, screenwriter Zhou Xiaoxuan — who is suing, in a Beijing court, famed state media anchor Zhu Jun for alleged sexual harassment and assault, which he deniessaid, “Even giving me 100 million [yuan], I wouldn’t settle.”

Under pressure, the Chinese government has made limited improvements. In December 2018, the Supreme Court added sexual harassment to the list of “causes of action,” making it easier for #MeToo victims to seek redress. Yet China still lacks robust laws against sexual harassment.

Silenced in their home country, Chinese feminists have increasingly found footing overseas. Utilizing the relatively free and safe space in Western countries, #MeToo activists hold protests, discussions and trainings, and provide support to their counterparts inside China.

In late 2019, authorities detained Huang Xueqin, a journalist and leading figure in China’s #MeToo movement, for three months for unknown reasons. Upon release, Huang reportedly wrote: “This is Xueqin, and I’m back. … One second of darkness doesn’t make people blind.”

Amid the vast darkness, nevertheless, Chinese feminists persisted.

Yaqiu Wang is a China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Women came forward. Then a chill factor set in.

Rituparna Chatterjee • India

(Meroo Seth for The Washington Post) (For The Washington Post)

In the fall of 2018, Indian women were part of an extraordinary moment in the country’s feminist history. Linking themselves to a global sisterhood of survivors, they took to social media to share experiences of sexual abuse with the hashtag #MeToo. As woman after woman narrated stories of pain and horror, I started the Twitter handle @IndiaMeToo to streamline and provide a platform for these voices.

Most of the stories were of acquaintance assault. Women narrated how men they once trusted — former boyfriends, classmates, professors and colleagues — raped them on dates, molested them in their sleep, kissed them forcibly, pretended not to understand consent and gaslighted them. More than a dozen women came forward to accuse a federal minister, M.J. Akbar, forcing him to resign. He denied the allegations and took one of them to court.

Since then, for the most part, a chill factor has set in, with men launching lawsuits against women in the hope they will serve as warnings.

Because they tend to occur in private spaces, most acquaintance sexual harassment cases are difficult to prove in court and aren’t taken seriously by the police. Women often find that reporting them — amid social censure and police apathy, in a country where brutal sexual crimes take precedence — is futile. And if they talk about these online, men call them liars for not reporting their abuse.

Ironically, the loudest clamor for justice has been from men themselves — prominent artists, journalists, lawyers and entertainers — worried that their reputations will suffer. But beyond losing a little social sheen, most are still able to bask in the toasty warmth of their social capital. Mainstream media organizations are largely silent.

#MeToo stories are now a reminder of the feminist moment that our institutions sidestepped to avoid accountability. In India, women still have limited access to justice — unless their stories are used as trauma porn for the nation.

Rituparna Chatterjee is an independent journalist and #MeToo activist.

High heels and discrimination in everyday life

Yumi Ishikawa • Japan

(Mariko Jesse for The Washington Post) (For The Washington Post)

The #MeToo movement arrived in Japan at the end of 2017. Before that, I believed sexual harassment, workplace bullying and sexual violence had nothing to do with me — though I had been the victim of such acts for a long time. But the #MeToo movement helped people realize that sexual harassment and violence are problems that affect their everyday lives.

There is always a backlash. Shiori Ito, a journalist who courageously accused a powerful man of rape, became the target of such violent criticism that it became difficult for her to live in Japan. It is a cycle familiar to many outspoken Japanese women: You gather your courage to speak up, only to be silenced by countless invisible anonymous people. Yet when we saw the large crowds participating in the “Flower Demonstrations” against court rulings acquitting sexual offenders, we saw proof that society was slowly but surely changing.

In 2019, I started the #KuToo movement, which began with my tweet complaining about the culture of dress codes that forced many women to wear high heels. Using shoes — something that felt more familiar to many than sexual violence — as a lens helped Japanese people understand how close to home sexual discrimination really is, and the different forms it can take.

Every day, I receive messages that say, “I now realize how sexual discrimination exists in so many aspects of everyday life.” At the same time, there are others who try to block me from speaking out, claiming the issue isn’t about sexual discrimination at all. But after a year of #KuToo, our voices have finally reached Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In March, he said that women shouldn’t be forced to wear high heels — a step in the right direction.

The Japanese public tends to be cautious about changing society, but I want people to see that it can happen. The next step is to urge them to take action.

Yumi Ishikawa is an actress, writer and feminist who started the #KuToo movement.

Where the legal system silences women

Nina Funnell • Australia

(Sonia Kretschmar for The Washington Post) (For The Washington Post)

When the #MeToo hashtag went viral in October 2017, Australians were quick to embrace it. An initial flurry of stories published pointed at high-profile men, including Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush.

But then, momentum stalled.

Rush disputed the account and was awarded 2.9 million Australian dollars ($2 million) in damages after successfully suing Nationwide News for defamation over two articles published in 2017. Fellow actor Craig McLachlan is now suing the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and Fairfax Media for defamation after being accused of indecent and inappropriate behavior and charged with assault, all of which he has denied.

The lawsuits have had a chilling effect on women coming forward. Australia does not protect free speech, and media freedom is not enshrined in law. Australia also has some of the most restrictive defamation laws in the world, which heavily favor the plaintiff.

In November last year, survivor confidence in media was eroded further when it was revealed that the Australian Broadcasting Corp. had distributed footage to other media outlets containing confidential disclosures of rape victims, who were unaware that their real names, faces and disclosures had been recorded.

That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been progress. A campaign by survivors for survivors has gained traction in reforming some of Australia’s archaic victim gag laws. Egregiously, at the time #MeToo went viral, it was against the law for sexual assault survivors in Tasmania and the Northern Territory, to self-identify in media. Journalists who named survivors — even with their consent — could face heavy fines or up to six months in jail.

In response, End Rape On Campus Australia and News Corp launched the #LetHerSpeak campaign in 2018 to advocate for law reform. Tasmania has now amended the gag law, and the Northern Territory has drafted proposed legislation to fix this, showing that sustained advocacy can make a difference.

Clearly, though, there is work ahead to ensure women’s voices are amplified and heard.

Nina Funnell is a journalist, advocate for sexual assault survivors and creator of the #LetHerSpeak campaign.

A battle of generations

Rokhaya Diallo • France

(Isabel Espanol for The Washington Post) (For The Washington Post)

“Shame!” cried actress Adèle Haenel as she walked out of the Césars, the French version of the Oscars, in February. She was reacting to the announcement of 86-year-old director Roman Polanski — who fled the United States in 1978 after being charged with rape and pleading guilty to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl — as the winner in the best director category. Eleven other women have accused Polanski of rape, which he has denied; many were underage when the acts allegedly took place. A few months before, Haenel created waves in the French cinema industry after accusing a film director of sexually assaulting her when she was as young as 12. As she was leaving the ceremony, she screamed, “Hurrah for pedophilia!”

But though the ceremony was widely called the “Shameful Césars,” Polanski still received praise from major actors and actresses, all of them older than 60, some of them calling the criticism of him a “lynching.”

Just a couple of months earlier, thanks to sexual abuse survivor Vanessa Springora’s book, the French public discovered how the literary world honored and protected Gabriel Matzneff, a prominent novelist who wrote a lot about his sexual contact with children and teenagers. Younger generations were shocked to realize how the older elite tolerated and even celebrated a man who had written for decades about molesting children.

In 2017, the #MeToo movement was met with mixed impressions in France. One hundred women, including emblematic actresses such as Catherine Deneuve, published an open letter to support men’s right to “pester” women in public, prioritizing the protection of men’s desire over the safety of women. Actress Brigitte Bardot, meanwhile, bashed the movement as “hypocritical and ridiculous.”

Yet the French #MeToo movement has revealed a younger generation who is no longer accepting of the silencing of survivors and willing to end the impunity enjoyed by powerful sexual predators. This confrontation between generations displays the slow collapse of an old world. The era of accountability is coming.

Rokhaya Diallo is a writer, journalist and filmmaker.

Bringing light to stories of the voiceless

Karen Attiah • Nigeria

(Diana Ejaita for The Washington Post) (For The Washington Post)

“If you want me to kiss you, switch off this light, lock the door, and I’ll kiss you for a minute,” a lecturer and pastor told a reporter posing undercover as an underage student at the University of Lagos in Nigeria. The encounter was caught on hidden camera during a BBC “Africa Eye” investigation that exposed sexual harassment in Nigerian and Ghanaian universities.

Soon after it aired, #Sex4Grades became a viral hashtag that sparked a massive conversation, with women and girls across the continent sharing their stories.

“The scale of the response, it was like magic,” said Kiki Mordi, the BBC investigation’s lead reporter, who herself was forced to drop out of school in Nigeria after refusing advances from a lecturer.

While #MeToo in the United States was pushed onto the mainstream by powerful female celebrities and journalists working in Hollywood and media, scores of West African women face predatory behavior as a part of everyday life, Mordi said. “What is different about this is that these are young and usually voiceless girls."

Legal changes have been slow. In response to #Sex4Grades, an anti-sexual-harassment bill focusing on tertiary education has been reintroduced in the Nigerian Senate, but progress on the bill has stalled. And while all the lecturers that were featured in the film were sacked from their posts, there have been no criminal investigations yet with regards to possible crimes against underage girls. Still, #Sex4Grades is a watershed moment for women’s progress in Africa. Mordi’s bravery should stand as a testament to the universal power of investigative journalism.

Karen Attiah is a Global Opinions editor.

Mexican women have lost their fear forever

Tamara De Anda • Mexico

(María Conejo for The Washington Post) (For The Washington Post)

When the #MeToo movement started in 2017, Mexican women felt hopeful. But the movement also felt distant, like a Hollywood production. When Mexican actress Karla Souza talked about suffering sexual abuse, she didn’t name the perpetrator; it was clear Mexican women still didn’t feel safe to tell the full story.

But in 2019, Mexico’s own #MeToo moment exploded, and no one saw it coming. On the day of a book presentation, there was a flood of accusations against the author, who had more of a reputation as an aggressor than a poet. The event was canceled.

The next day, the author denied the charges. Minutes later came the first tweet: You did hit me. Then another one: I got pregnant, and you disappeared. In a matter of hours there was a wave of testimonies, not just about that writer, but against other prominent figures who for years had abused and harassed women. Suddenly, #MeToo swept through the music and film industries, the theater, advertising and other creative fields, universities and the media.

Some companies turned on the women instead of working to punish the aggressors. But in general, virtually overnight, there was the urgent need to share stories and listen to prevent more violence. Organizations are all still grappling with this: how to have a deep and meaningful self-examination while avoiding what some see as superficial appropriating of the movement — “purplewashing” — to improve their public image.

It might be too soon to evaluate the full impact of the #MeToo movement in Mexico, because it also intersects with other important movements and campaigns. But every day we see more accusations and testimonies. We now know that speaking up is a real option, that we won’t be alone if we make public our experiences with abuse. We are also organizing more broadly to demand an end to violence against women and equal treatment in the workplace. Initiatives such as #MujeresJuntasMarabunta or #YaEsHora are the proof.

In March, tens of thousands of women marched in the streets of Mexico City, demanding an end to the senseless murders of women that take place everyday. The next day, women took part in an unprecedented strike to call attention to femicides.

Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I don’t think this is going to end anytime soon.

Tamara De Anda is a Mexican writer and activist.

#MosqueMeToo was about solidarity among Muslim women

Mona Eltahawy • Middle East

(Lamiaa Ameen for The Washington Post) (For The Washington Post)

When I started #MosqueMeToo in February 2018, I wanted to break the taboo that keeps Muslim women and girls from exposing the sexual violence they are subjected to in Islamic sacred spaces. I was sexually assaulted twice during hajj (pilgrimage) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia — Islam’s holiest site — in 1982, when I was 15. It took me more than 10 years to be able to talk about it.

In addition to the shame that is unjustifiably flung at victims of sexual assault — a shame that had silenced me — Muslim women face another burden that discourages them from speaking out. They are caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock is a collective of racists and Islamophobes who are eager to demonize all Muslim men and are all too glad to use Muslim women’s testimony of misogyny to that end. The hard place is a Muslim community that is eager to defend all Muslim men and is glad to silence Muslim women from testifying to misogyny. Neither truly care about Muslim women.

So to stand in solidarity with fellow Muslim women, I intended to follow in the steps of Tarana Burke, who in 2007 first said #MeToo as an act of solidarity with young black women. I asked Muslim women who could speak out to share their experience of sexual assault in sacred spaces. #MosqueMeToo quickly went viral around the world.

Not a single man has been arrested or put on trial as a result of #MosqueMeToo, but that was never my goal. Instead, I feel my goal is being achieved one woman at a time. Whenever a Muslim woman mentions the hashtag on social media and speaks out about her sexual assault, I imagine her smashing that barrier.

I was called a liar when I first spoke out about my sexual assault at hajj. Now, we are too many to be dismissed as liars.

Mona Eltahawy is the author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution” and the The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls.”

Read more:

Karina Piser: France could finally be on the brink of a #MeToo reckoning

Kavita Krishnan: The response to the Hyderabad rape spotlights India’s dangerous turn

Haeryun Kang: The K-pop sex scandal is just the beginning

Mona Eltahawy: #MosqueMeToo: What happened when I was sexually assaulted during the hajj

Video: ‘If you grope me, I’ll break your hand’

We noticed you’re blocking ads!

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on.
Unblock ads
Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us